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STAR power: Students learn conflict resolution skills

With the help of STAR (Students Teaching Attitudes of Respect) leaders, Bemidji Middle School students learned about peace skills and how to recognize wants and needs of fellow classmates on Friday. Here, Sue Liedl, teacher of Peacemaker Resources and developer of STAR, uses flash cards to help students better communicate with one another. (From left) are students Josh Wass, Isaiah Lawerence, Abbie Clague, Nick Meyers and Storm Strong. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Four Bemidji Middle School sixth-graders sat cross-legged around a hula hoop, two of them holding a ping-pong ball between them. They reached out to their sides as they all gently touched fingertips. As the circle was made complete, the ball began flashing red, emitting a friendly celebratory buzz.

“It takes all of us connected to do this,” explained Becca Josephson, the peer leader of the group. “If one person detached, it would not work.”

Becca is one of several peer leaders known as STA R leaders, or Students Teaching Attitudes of Respect, a conflict-resolution program offered by Peacemaker Resources and the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. STAR, in its 14 years, has trained more than 2,800 peer leaders in 14 schools in northern Minnesota; those students themselves train fellow peers and others.

STAR students hosted two sessions Friday at BMS, both lasting about two hours and filled with activities and games. At one point, students were asked to stand up, hold out their fingers, stiff and straight, and balance the hula hoop atop them as they worked together as a team to lower it to the floor.

Some teams faltered quickly, others were more immediately successful. Some checked to see if they were “winning” or “losing,” while others seemed to get frustrated with team members who were going too slowly or quickly.

“Was it a competition?” asked one student, after it was all said and done.

It was not, answered Sue Liedl, the STAR founder and trainer with Peacemaker Resources. The activity was not at all about racing or going quickly necessarily, but learning from each other to accomplish the task together.

Liedl said one of the morning groups performed incredibly well right out of the gate, quickly lowering their hoop to the group in ease. She asked them to do it again, and they did, again quite easily.

The reason, she explained, was that they were taking turns talking, actively listening to one another. They also were smiling, which is relaxing.

Any time you encounter conflict, she advised, take a breath and relax before proceeding.

A dozen BMS sixth-graders this year were trained at Concordia Language Villages to be STAR leaders. Those students then work to teach and lead sessions at the middle school throughout the year to teach peers conflict-resolution skills and how to apply them in various circumstances.

“They’re excellent teachers,” Liedl said of STAR students, not just at BMS but all around the state.

Some STAR students have ventured out into businesses to teach conflict-resolution, and also into college settings.

“It definitely works in the real world,” she said of the curriculum, noting that many adults have never been exposed to it before.

At BMS, one of the activities had students using flashcards to indicate personal needs — friendship, for example — and then using “I statements” to express those needs and their feelings.

“Different people come from different places and have different needs,” said Travis Zachman, a BMS counselor who along with social worker Pauline Winge serves as a co-leader for peer-leading at BMS.

Zachman, while working with one group of students, said it is perfectly OK that everyone has different experiences and needs.

“It’s pretty easy to go through life thinking about yourself and what you need,” he said. “It’s much harder to think of others and what they need.”

A short time later, Liedl asked students, in a timed activity, to write down as many words they could through word-association: What do you think of when you hear conflict?

The answers came quick: mad, angry, fighting, punching, hitting, screaming, violence, etc.

“Every time I think of conflict, I think of North Korea,” said Brady Crosby, writing that down along with about a half-dozen other ideas.

In look at the lists as a whole, Liedl made her point, “Does this sound like peace to anybody?”

The students offered a unanimous no.

“The reason is — and this is the sad part — this is all the consequence of people not having the skills for peace,” she said.

If you have the skills, and know how to apply them, the words that should be associated with conflict are those such as learning, problem-solving, stop and think and win-win, she continued.

“We need these skills so we can deal with (conflict) and encourage peace,” Liedl said.